Crystal River Ranch near Carbondale seeks to preserve water rights tied to potential dams, reservoirs

Are junior water rights to an oversubscribed river enough to justify two large reservoirs for a farm?
Elk gather in irrigated hay fields below Dry Park Road on the Crystal River Ranch, which is seeking to maintain conditional water storage rights tied to two potential 55-foot-tall dams. One of the dams would be located at the edge of the hayfields, to the left in the photo, and another would be located in the Four Mile Creek valley. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

By Heather Sackett

CARBONDALE — Sue Anschutz-Rodgers, the owner of Crystal River Ranch above Carbondale, has told the state she is making progress toward building two 55-foot-tall dams that would form two 500-acre-foot reservoirs on land she owns in the Four Mile Creek basin and along Dry Park Road.

The cattle and hay operation has been owned by the Anschutz family since 1966. Water attorneys for Anschutz-Rodgers and the ranch are in state water court seeking to maintain conditional water-storage rights tied to the two potential reservoirs: Sue’s Four Mile Reservoir No. 1 and Sue’s Four Mile Reservoir No. 2.

They would be located on ranch-owned land in the Four Mile Creek drainage and along Dry Park Road, respectively.

The dam that would form Reservoir No. 1 would be 55 feet tall and 950 feet long, and the resulting reservoir would inundate 22 acres with water. The dam for Reservoir No. 2 would be 55 feet tall and 800 feet long, and the reservoir would inundate 30 acres. Each reservoir would hold as much as 500 acre-feet of water. By comparison, Grizzly Reservoir on Lincoln Creek above Aspen holds 590 acre-feet of water and is formed by a 56-foot-tall dam that floods 44 acres of land.

Anschutz-Rodgers is a philanthropist and environmentalist whose brother Phil Anschutz is worth $12 billion, according to Forbes. She has served locally on the boards of the Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Thompson Divide Coalition, and Anschutz-Rodgers is listed on the application as general partner of Crystal River Ranch Co., LLC.

On March 13, her water attorney, Glenn Porzak of Boulder-based Porzak Browning & Bushong, told the court in a proposed ruling that Crystal River Ranch “has exercised reasonable diligence in the development” of the two dams and reservoirs. He also noted that “the measure of diligence is the steady application of effort to complete the appropriation in a reasonably expedient and efficient manner.”

As such, the ranch is requesting that the conditional water-storage rights tied to the two potential dams — rights first decreed in 2006 — be extended for another six-year period.

“I believe we have shown the necessary amount of work to show diligence and extend these conditional rights,” Porzak said.

Any start of the dams’ construction, Porzak said, “is still at a preliminary stage.”

Irrigation of a large farm near Carbondale.
Water from Four Mile Creek irrigates land on Crystal River Ranch off of Dry Park Road above Carbondale. Ranch owner Sue Anschutz-Rodgers has told the state she is making progress toward building two dams and reservoirs on the property. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Irrigating more than 600 acres

The water from the potential reservoirs could be used to irrigate 535 acres of land along Dry Park Road, which drains into the Roaring Fork River, and another 93 acres of land in the Four Mile Creek basin. Four Mile Creek flows into the Roaring Fork downstream of the Ironbridge golf course.

The Crystal River Ranch house and the main part of the sprawling 7,600-acre site is located just off Garfield County Road 108, which leads from Carbondale up to the popular Spring Gulch cross-country ski area. The section of the ranch visible from CR 108 is irrigated with water diverted from the Crystal River via the Sweet Jessup Canal.

Another section of the ranch where elk are often seen roaming the irrigated hay meadows is off Dry Park Road, which runs between CR 108 and 4 Mile Road. The land in Dry Park is currently irrigated with water diverted from Four Mile Creek via the McKown Ditch, which crosses the ridge that separates Dry Park from the Four Mile Creek valley.

The headgate for the McKown ditch on Four Mile Creek is about 1½ miles downstream from the Sunlight ski area.

According to its application, the 1,000 acre-feet of water that the ranch hopes to store would be used for four purposes: stock watering, piscatorial, wildlife and irrigation. (Piscatorial pertains to fish.)

The owner of this farm wants to construct two dams to flood 50 acres of land with a reserve. But junior water rights mean on low water years those reservoirs aren't likely to fill.
A herd of elk could be seen roaming amid the irrigation sprinklers of Crystal River Ranch on Thursday. Ranch owner Sue Anschutz-Rodgers has told the state she is making progress toward building two dams and reservoirs on the property. Photo by Heather Sackett/Aspen Journalism

Diligence application

Crystal River Ranch filed its initial water-rights application for the two potential dams in Division 5 Water Court in Glenwood Springs in 2006. After working through some issues with five other water-rights holders in the case, a conditional water-rights decree for the two dams and reservoirs was issued by Judge James Boyd in 2013.

The 2013 decree required Crystal River Ranch to submit a due-diligence application in 2019 in order to maintain the conditional water rights.

In the diligence application, Porzak said since 2013 the ranch has spent $70,000 to “survey the reservoir sites; prepare layouts of the dams and reservoirs; (and) design work on the spillways, inlets, and outlet infrastructures of the reservoirs.”

A portion of the $70,000 also went to “design irrigation improvements and conduct layout of the pumps and sprinklers for the lands to be irrigated by the reservoirs; conduct a hydrology analysis for each reservoir site; drill boreholes at each reservoir site; test soil samples and perform a geotechnical analysis of each reservoir site; and prepare cost estimates for each reservoir site and all of the associated infrastructure.”

In reviewing a diligence application, the division engineer and the water court’s referee, who functions as an administrative judge, apply a standard of diligence. The standard is often met by the applicant listing the work they’ve done on the potential facilities that are tied to the water rights and are necessary to put the water to use.

“You have to show you are moving forward in a reasonable manner,” said Alan Martellaro, the Division 5 engineer.

No entities filed a statement of opposition to the application.

Martellaro reviewed the diligence application along with Susan Ryan, the water court’s referee, and then filed a memo — called “a summary of consultation” — with the court Feb. 28.

The summary said Crystal River Ranch “should provide reports and other documents, which support the diligence activities performed within the relevant diligence period as claimed in the application.”

The site where a proposed 55-foot tall dam would be constructed to irrigate 500 acres.
A stony irrigation channel runs past rolled hay on the Crystal River Ranch, just below Dry Park Road, with Basalt Mountain in the background. The pond in the lower field, to the right of the white trailer, drains to the Roaring Fork River and is the approximate location for a potential 55-foot-tall dam that would hold 500 acre-feet of water. Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith/Aspen Journalism

Next steps

To date, however, none of these documents have been filed with the court, and only a hard-to-read map of the general area where the reservoirs would be located has been made public.

Porzak said the work done on the two potential reservoirs has not yet been reduced to final written reports.

He also said that the activities in the diligence application were verified under oath by Craig Ullmann, the engineer who oversaw the work. Ullmann is president of Applegate Group Inc., a water-engineering firm with offices in Glenwood Springs.

Martellaro said the word “should” in the court’s summary of consultation means “should,” not “must,” so it is not clear whether the design documents for the two dams will be made public through the court process. He also said the documents cited in the application would be helpful for the state to have on file for the next diligence filing.

Porzak said all the relevant information was contained in the application.

Should the dams ever be built, the associated water rights would hold a priority date of 2006, a junior right under Colorado’s system of prior appropriation. As such, Crystal River Ranch couldn’t count on the water being there to store in dry years, Martellaro said.

“It’s a really junior water right on a stream that’s over-appropriated,” he said. “This is one of those creeks that just doesn’t have surplus. They are pretty much limited to snowmelt runoff to fill these ponds.”

Aspen Journalism is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization supported by its donors and funders and partners with The Aspen Times and other Swift communications publications on water coverage. This story ran in the May 4 edition of The Aspen Times and the May 4 edition of Aspen Journalism.

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